State v. Gleason

So, of all the curious cases I’ve had through my many years of practice, no doubt the strangest was the Gleason matter. Now that I am retired, and after so many years, I see no reason not to tell the whole story, not just what appeared in the public court papers.

It was in the late ‘50s, in the City, a time of residual racial tension. I was working out of a small office, just starting out on my own, taking whatever cases came through the door. Someone at the Bar Association gave the family my name, and one Saturday morning my door opened and Buster’s mother peered in from the hallway, perhaps expecting an ante-room or at least a secretary; I was a few years away from either such luxury.

I motioned her to a chair and we introduced ourselves. She carried with her a hint of the pine-scent from the newly washed hallway floor mixed with a strong overtone of perspiration that bridged the short distance to my desk. I realized after she was seated that I had not risen on her entry; I think I was surprised she was a Negro woman, and I suspect she did not expect a white lawyer to get up from his chair in any event.

“Call me Mrs. G, everyone does,” she instructed me in an inflected blend of Southern drawl and City terseness; she wiggled her bulk in between the wooden spindles of the chair, her dark blouse straining against her chest and her black skirt hiking dangerously up over her enormous black thighs; she sloughed off several sweaters and wraps, which I believe served in lieu of an overcoat. Her small brown paper bag she placed carefully at the edge of my desk, the top crumpled where she had held it with apparent vigor.

I was still living in my late parent’s brownstone, but the surge of Negroes moving North after the War was peaking as they followed jobs and presumed opportunities. Their invasion changed neighborhoods almost overnight, houses gobbled up block by block. Already, my white neighbors and I had begun to receive the phone calls from the real estate brokers; if we did not sell now at the higher price, later sales would be inevitable and would reflect the fallen real estate values that “those folks” always brought with them. The Negroes were coming, the Negroes were coming, they drive down prices maybe 50%, maybe more.

My young wife, like so many other brownstone residents, was beginning to both worry and then feel guilty about being forced out rather than staying to embrace our new residents who had to be okay, yes, if they could afford the high purchase prices being discussed….

As Mrs. G continued to jiggle her bulk into submission, an uneasy détente with my oak chair that I thought I heard groan in its joints at one point, I had a chance to observe. I guessed she was one of those “cleaning women,” always black (it was well before we starting calling the Negroes black, actually; “Negro” was in fact one of the nicer descriptives) who would come to your house to clean. You would call the City Employment Office and “order” a cleaning woman, who would show up the next day in work-clothes, sometimes carrying her own pail or shopping bag containing her particularly favorite form of cleaning supplies. In exchange for 75 cents an hour and a lunch prepared by the lady of the house, and in exchange for absorbing the pervasive odor of sweat unimpeded by then not-yet-popular deodorant products, your “domestic” would clean out your toilets, wash your linoleum, scrub the mottled grey surface of your gas range, and (if you were lucky and didn’t get one of those “I don’t do windows” types) would glass-wax away the City grime from your bay windows.

Mrs. G’s bag contained fives and tens totaling $140 which, Mrs. G explained, was all the family could now afford, and would I please help her Buster, a good man who could be in trouble for, well, exposing himself — which was not as bad as it seemed if I would only go to the City Jail and talk to Buster and learn what she gently called “the particulars of the situations.”

“More than once?,” I asked quietly.

“Yes,” she replied with some annoyance that I had bothered to confirm her precise choice of word, “situation—zzzz.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Buster was wearing blue jeans without a belt, a plain white undershirt in the old style with straps, and those black tall Keds sneakers with no socks and laces; the tongues drooped sadly over the top of his feet like a pair of panting and none-too-clean street dogs.   I did not then have enough contact with Negro men to venture even a guess as to his age, but he was not a kid and he had no gray; maybe early thirties, or thereabouts? Buster was pretty close to thirty I concluded, one side or the other. He spoke with the flat nasal tones of the City with no trace of the South, unusual for his time and place. I asked him what he did for a living; he had no job.

“So what do you do with yourself when you’re not looking for work?” I was trying to get a feel for the guy and did not have the touch for it.

Buster smiled but did not look down, rather engaging my eyes directly. “Don’t do much, boss,” he said in a sardonic, subdued drawl which he had acquired just in time for his answer to my question.

“Buster, please don’t do that thing with me. I’ve got your rap sheet here and it shows five – or is it six, yeah six separate complaints for indecent exposure. That’s a crime that puts you in the jug, Buster, in case you were wondering.” My tone was emphasized when I tucked my chin onto my chest and looked at him through the tops of my glasses.

Buster came back diffidently. His mother had wanted a lawyer. Wasting her money she made the hard way, cleaning up – white people’s shit. She musta hit the bank pretty hard, paying for a white guy to boot. Buster himself, he’s gonna plead out and avoid the “dance where the Negro goes to the judge who assumes he’s paying the white lawyer because he’s guilty as hell and so he needs the boost of paying up for some white guy to defend him, so he goes to jail real fast for exposing his dick to a bunch of white women and he’s broke also.”

I recall thinking that his analysis was not far off the mark in all likelihood, but my job was to defend, not commiserate about the quality of justice. “Buster, please just tell me what happened. Did you do it, let’s start with the first one? And if you did, what were you thinking, what the hell were you trying to prove?”

Buster sighed, and you could see him deciding that he had to go through the drill. He told me his story.

“We’re hanging at Jojo’s, on the stoop. It’s the summer, ya know, it’s hot as shit. No one’s got any money. Louie and Stepp, they’re working at the machine shop on Center, ya know? But the rest of us, we ain’t getting hired so fast. Here my mama she’s working in white people’s houses…” Buster dropped his head and shook it; then looked up and looked right at me and continued: “and she’s paying for me and everything” [here an accusatory glare, his brow knits at me] “and supporting me and my sister, and I got my High School diploma, my mother she pays for some classes for me to learn how to talk like no Nigger talk so I can get a better job that way but, ya know, I think it is hurting me actually, the man he wants me to shuck and jive and he just thinks I’m acting what I’m not like. Almost” [another glare] “uppity.”

“So most of our mamas, they’re cleaning houses, the usual. And we don’t like that so we don’t think about it that much, all our money comes from some tired old mama with knees hurting so she has to ask my sister to rub them each night, some Negro woman with a crap life on her knees five or six days a week to bend and scrub for some white woman who don’t work nowhere anyhow, ya know? Makes you …” [long…pause, eyes roll upwards in search of the word, then quietly] “sorta sad and pissed. Ya know?”

“So whaddaya gonna do? Can’t afford no beers, ain’t even mentioning some hard stuff. I could cry for my mama. I keep looking for work and it ain’t easy. Then one of my friends from school, he tells me he gets an interview at Wilson’s, the big store downtown huh? And he’s like he goes in and the guy tells him they are looking for laborers, that’s the word he says, laborers, not some guy who thinks he’s some executive or something, ya know? So my friend he tells the guy, “no just what are ya tellin’ me,” and the dude he say, “we want someone willing to do the manual laborer, not someone thinks he’s on his way to some college.”

Buster leans forward, this is his teaching moment. “So here we got all these fuckin’ white bitches, sippin’ their tea and watchin’ my mama’s ass, and Jo-Jo’s mama, and Tyrell’s mama, they’re leaning on their hands and knees over a bucket wiping up the shit this woman’s kids dropped on her floor, which sucks enough to do but why she looking so hard at my mama there? Why, I’m asking you now lawyer? You know? You wanna guess?”

I thought I knew. I knew I wasn’t about to answer; maybe he’ll just answer his own question. Seconds pass; maybe not.

Buster waits long enough to know I am trapped, and his smile breaks out broadly. “Well, I can tell by your not answering me that you KNOW the answer, just don’ wanna say, which I do truly understand. So I’ll tell it for ya, man. She wants to be sure my mama ain’t stealin’ anything. Stealin’ her shit, ya know? Stealin’ all her precious stuff, like mama’s gonna grab her new Crosley TV and drag it home on the bus so we can all sit around and watch Amos and Andy.”

A long pause.

“So fuck that. So I’m thinkin’ what am I gonna do to punish those snotty white bitches with their fuckin’ 75 cents an hour for my mama’s ass waving in the air, scrubbing her white kid shit up offa the floors; and then it just come to me. Just like THAT!” A crisp snap of fingers; I get a glimpse of nails bitten below the quick, more like some little claws of some underground digging creature moving mud around his tunnels.

“So next afternoon I go out to Sunnyside, I take a stroll around, and then I sit out back the A&P, there’s a back door there I see, and every once in a while one of them white bitches she comes out with a big bag of food, and then one comes out who I don’t like the way she looks, sort of snotty in a fancy dress with flowers, don’t even notice she’s pretty or ugly or what ya know, so real quick I pull down my trousers and my shorts and I wave it all around, like hey look at my hardware, y’all.”

Buster looks down for the first time in a while; he seems upset by his speech if not his actions.

I wait but he’s done with his story. “So, what happened?” I ask. I look down at the police report. “Says here you ran away?”

“Yeah,” Buster is weary now, the good part is over for him. “She looks funny and then just turns away, then damned if she don’ look back real quick like she don’ believe what she seein’, puts down her food bag real slow and neat and starts back to the store. So I hike myself up back together and run like hell. Don’ know what she do next, I am gone from that place, fa sure….”

There is a long pause. Buster had been talking at least for the moment, but now he is talked out it seems. I scan the police report.

“And these different times, different stores all around Sunnyside, you did those too?”

“Yeah well, that’s where my mama works mostly, Sunnyside, there a lotta money out there in Sunnyside ya know.” A small smile. “Betcha you live there yourself, huh.” It is a statement of fact, not a question.

“I live on Fifth.”

“They break your block yet,” he asks, smiling again.

“Let’s stick with you, not where I live. You’re telling me you did this what, seven or eight times? Never got caught? Never said anything to these women. No one ever chased you, at least until this last one?”

No answer. I am ahead of myself, asking too many questions at once, he is closing up.

“Let’s start out again. So you tell me you did the first one?”

“Yeah, I done it alright.”

“And the other seven, no wait the other five?”

“Prob’ly. Only remember four others actually but sound like maybe the fifth one was me too.”

I am scanning down the report, looking for my next question; I see something I do not understand.

“What does it mean here, the women said that when you exposed yourself you sort of, well swung it around and it was – white in color?”

Buster laughed for his own amusement, low and short. “Yeah, that’s why I guess I done all the other five, they all said it was white, a real white waving machine man. Ain’t no one else gonna do like that, y’know?”

“Hold on there, Buster. Are you telling me that your….” Hard stop. Buster smiled really wide this time, for me as well as to himself.

“Well, that would beat all if it were white, I tell ya,” Buster said. Then he told me the rest of his story.

*          *          *          *          *          *          * 

We came to trial in Muni about four weeks later. Until then, Buster stayed inside his jail; no need for more trouble. Mrs. G brought me three more bags, each with about $15 in small bills.

“Leave him in,” Mrs. G instructed. “Don’t you ask no bail. He’s like to do something stupid if you let him out. ‘sides, we ain’t likely able to raise no bail anyhow.”

“I have an obligation to my client. I might be able to get him out on recognizance, remanded to you, no cash bail.”

“You gonna do your job, you gonna leave that Buster right where he is. You listen to his momma now, I’m bringing you the money and I’m tellin’ you how this is goin’ happen! Boy never so much stole a candy bar, don’t care what he tells you. Boy needs help. Let him out on our block, you think you doin’ your lawyer duty to help him. You ain’t so smart you think that.”

So Buster I left in stir, they call his case, he is brought in, he is wearing a nice shirt with a collar as I told his mother to bring him, but she is not in court, I guess she is washing some white bitch’s floor somewhere. I wish Buster had better trousers, not the thing he was arrested in, and I wish he had shaven, he has a lot of stubble for a young guy, but by and large he does not look like the dangerous type. His Keds still don’t have laces, they flop open above his ankles, the tongue flapping onto the top of each foot as he bounces his legs nervously under the defendant’s table. The Assistant DA, I know this guy, he’s pretty good, one of the few who looks at the file before he starts talking to the judge, he responds he is ready to go to trial.

“Is the defense ready?” asks the judge.

“Your Honor, I request a bench conference before we begin.”

“Counsel, no one has said a word yet. You have a problem so soon, even before we start? We haven’t even sworn the jury yet. Why don’t we try this case, doesn’t look too complicated, I see this is the first time your client has been to court, the boy’s got his troubles as I am sure you will tell me, I don’t even know why you didn’t plead him out….”

“Your Honor, the charges are indecent exposure. He cannot be guilty as a matter of law and I ask your indulgence to approach.”

The ADA rolled his eyes, but the Judge (Joe Henry, an old warhorse who has heard it all, but a decent and mellow fellow at root) holds up his hand and waves me forward. “But this better be good, Mr. Winters. Tell me fast, I am all ears, why he cannot be guilty AS A MATTER OF THE LAW. All five, six times, where he’s been ID’d by good citizens in all of these – incidents.”

“Your Honor, the prosecution will allege, accurately I might add, that all the female victims, or alleged victims, saw a white — member, well a white sex organ.”

The judge’s eyebrows raised slightly, he grasped the edge of his desk and pulled his chair forward a couple of inches and looked around me at Buster, fidgeting at the large oak table. He settled back behind the judge’s bench with a slight smile. “Yes counsel, do tell.”

“Well, it is hardly likely he painted himself white down there,” I started.

“I am not interested in speculation and you may find this humorous but I would like to hear what you are trying in your own stumbling way to tell me.”

“Sorry, your Honor.”

The judge turned to the ADA. “Mr. Grantham, will in fact all witnesses, if asked, testify that the— testify as defense counsel has suggested?”

“Yes, your Honor. We are not—exactly sure what that means but all of them did mention that, but they also positively identified it; or rather, I mean, identified him. The defendant. His face, that is….”

“Your Honor,” I jumped in, “I am not saying that Mr. Gleason was not the person standing before all of these women. What I am saying is – well, perhaps I might impose on your Honor to ask learned counsel about the white sweat sock my clients was, shall I say, WEARING at the time of his arrest.”

The judge turned to Grantham, and I swear the judge licked his lips gently in preparation for laughter. Grantham for his part glared at me, and then softened his expression as he turned towards Judge Henry.

“Yes?” asked the judge.

“Uh, yes….” said the ADA slowly.

Henry turned to me. “I am, yet again, all ears,” he said.

“Your Honor, I am not saying my client is not guilty of a tasteless prank. But the gravamen, the essence of the offense of indecent exposure is, well, ‘exposure.’ And my client just didn’t, shall we say, expose anything to anyone.”

“Mr. Grantham?” asked the judge.

Grantham sputtered, the judge began to chuckle and I could not resist.

“Perhaps the learned prosecutor can point to a city ordinance,” I invited, “prohibiting the opening of one garment to reveal, however shockingly, yet another article of clothing.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Buster disappeared from my life. I think I was told that he moved away from the City. I have no idea if he did good or evil. His mama paid me fifteen dollars a week until my whole fee was paid– $400. All in cash, all in small brown paper lunch bags, all hand-carried to my office. After a while I began feeling guilty about the whole thing and I asked he to stop paying me, we were even, but Mrs. G would not hear of it.

Then about ten years later I heard from someone, a client, that Buster had passed away. I would have been interested in the circumstances, but they were not offered and I decided not to ask.

For years after, I got a constant flow of small cases of all sorts from the Negro community in the Borough. They dried up about the time that the nomenclature graduated to “Black.” We held onto the Brownstone until it was one of the last ones on the block not sold to Negro buyers; by then, the price had shot upwards radically, and my wife and I found a lovely ranch house in Sunnyside that we could now afford. In fact I am writing this while sitting on the small deck out back, we are still here though our kids are long gone.

For some reason, I insisted that we always do our own house-cleaning, even when the time came when we could easily afford to pay someone to do it for us. My wife, long-suffering as they say in so many ways by reason of her husband, never pressed the issue, and I felt obliged to pitch in with the housework well before that became the fashion or, at least, the alleged norm. Perhaps, I do not know, my wife understood.

My own reason was really quite simple. I owed it to Buster.